Preliminary reports from various outlets suggest that North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un’s (KJU) health is possibly at risk following an alleged cardiovascular procedure earlier this month for which he is receiving treatment. The approximately 36-year-old dictator’s health has long been a point of speculation for observers outside North Korea’s notoriously closed society. His country is considered one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world.

North Korea watchers are speculating that KJU’s health has seriously declined following his rise to power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who himself suffered strokes and a fatal heart attack. The dictator reportedly suffers from a number of health issues stemming from obesity, excessive smoking, and overwork. While he is considered to have almost god-like status among the brainwashed and repressed North Korean people, the government is not likely to be forthcoming regarding his actual health condition outside his immediate circle.

Given that such information would not be shared except in the event of the regime conducting a rapid transition of power, analysts have taken to following KJU’s presence at various known events in North Korea to obtain indicators as to his possible status and whereabouts.

One such possible indicator is an April 15th celebration for the birthday of KJU’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The celebration is reportedly the nation’s most important holiday. CNN reported that KJU was not present at the celebrations, suggesting the dictator’s declining health may have possibly played a role. However, a measure of healthy skepticism exists in policy and analysis circles, which note that among others, South Korea’s Unification Ministry and National Intelligence Service were unable to confirm the news reports of KJU’s reported health condition.

KJU was initially not expected to assume power following his father’s death, as analysts favored his father’s reportedly favorite son and KJU’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. However, Kim Jong-nam was later exiled from North Korea following his criticism of the family regime. He was later assassinated in 2017 by two women who smeared a VX nerve agent on his face while waiting to catch a plane in Malaysia. Experts assess KJU ordered the assassination.

Should speculation of KJU’s poor health prove true, it is likely the regime will keep the dictatorship in the family. Some analysis suggests KJU’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, as a possible candidate to assume power following her ascendancy in the Communist Workers’ party as the nation’s — and KJU’s — chief propagandist. While Kim Yo-jong has herself been accused of “severe human rights abuses,” she has also been visibly present at several high-stakes diplomatic proceedings with both the United States and South Korea. She maintains direct access to KJU and reportedly studied in Switzerland around the same time her brother did in the late 1990s.

While information is sparse, it remains paramount to analyze and corroborate it as it becomes available. Should health problems eventually end KJU’s tenure, it remains to be seen which direction the brutal and dangerous regime will take, and how it will impact the repressed North Korean people and those living in the shadow of fear cast by the rogue, nuclear-capable state.

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